Tag Archives: Alberta Theatre Projects

Angels in America in Calgary

On September 19, 1996, Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) premiered Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America. Before even opening, the play attracted a wagon load of controversy. “Why are taxpayers still having to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars to a company that stages a self-indulgent production many feel is abhorrent? It is simply not right,” expressed the Calgary Sun.

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Image from ATP Theatre Program: Photographer Jason Stang

A number of Alberta MLAs were also on the record questioning provincial funding of ATP, which was $550,000 that year, about 1/6th of its operating budget. Calgary-Shaw Tory MLA Jon Havelock suggested that plays offending community standards should not receive public funding. He added, “It seems to me that in some instances people confuse sexual expression with artistic expression.”

Calgary-Fish Creek Tory MLA Heather Forsyth called Angels obscene and about ATP said: “If they can’t come up with better shows than this, maybe they shouldn’t be getting funding.”

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Edmonton Sun Editorial Cartoon: September 15, 1996

ATP’s producing director, Michael Dobbin, rejoindered that MLAs were wrong to attack the play without seeing it first, and he criticized their community standards argument. At the theatre company’s Annual General Meeting, just days before the play opened, he expressed equal outrage: “I say, back off! I say, let the ballots be counted at the box office! That’s the only censorship that I’m prepared to accept.”

Calgary’s reactions to the controversy were polarized; there were dozens of articles and editorials in the Calgary dailies extremely for or against. A conservative radio call-in show buzzed with furor, and ATP itself fielded a number of strange or hostile phone calls, including one who pledged to “shut the show down – we are not going to stand for it in this City.”

There were heartfelt published defenses of Angels in America too. A well-known educator, Dariel Bateman, wrote a guest column in the Calgary Herald on September 13th. She described the play as: “a glorious opportunity to stare down despair, to make sense of things, as we must.”

On of the most fascinating developments was when the Calgary Herald’s Don Martin managed to get protesting MLA Havelock to actually see the play with him. He summarized the experience in an article titled: Angels in America: The sequel: It’s easy to be a critic before the house lights dim, published on September 27th. As the play progressed, surprisingly Havelock became engrossed. At one point he felt compelled to spontaneously applaud; he loved it. He wrote, “thoroughly enjoyable” on a comment card before he left.

Alberta Report Cover, October 7, 1996.

The conservative and sometimes inflammatory publication, Alberta Report, made Angels in America its cover story on October 7th. It took the ATP promotional image of an angel and altered it for its cover, making it sickly: thinning muscles and adding skin legions.* Alberta Report writer Kevin Grace opined that Angels “is an artistic failure but it bears a powerful revolutionary message. While it elevates the belief current in the ‘AIDS community’ that victims of the disease are holy martyrs, homosexuals and AIDS victims are only one division of Mr. Kushner’s vaster army: one that seeks to destroy the very concept of the law – on earth and in heaven.”

He sensationally concluded his three-page article with: “those who see Angels in America as mere entertaining, diverting theatre, should know what they are getting into. In hell, the Marquis de Sade is smiling.”

Ultimately, ATP found themselves smiling. The controversy put extra bums in seats and attracted almost $50,000 in individual “Angels Consortium” donations. The play doubled expected ticket revenues and was sold out in its final weeks – setting audience records for the company.


* Photographer Jason Stang filed a lawsuit against Alberta Report for altering his image claiming the publication: distorted, defaced and mutilated his work.



Seeking the 620 crowd!

Before Club Carousel in the late 1960’s there was a bar called the 620 club at 620 8th Avenue SW near the site of the old Uptown Theatre.  Frequented by both gay men and lesbians, you accessed this underground bar by stairs in the back alley between 5th and 6th streets.

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620 8th Avenue SW Calgary today: image Google Earth

It opened in 1967 or 1968, and was owned by a man described as short and swarthy, with a big nose and a limp.  The 620 was just a number on the door, and there was no alcohol served – there was only popcorn and pop machines. The room was not very big, and was decorated by a lot of christmas tree lights with a central light bulb (red?) hanging from the ceiling.

Former producing director of Alberta Theatre Projects, Michael Dobbin, remembers: “It was a time when if you saw someone you recognized at the club [from one’s day-to-day life] it made you feel kind of queazy and you left.  It was only open on the weekends.  Getting there, you would sneak down the laneway, look both ways and then quickly go down the stairs.”

“One night I remember that it was really crowded and there were these three guys in suits – one of whom I found quite attractive – so I went up to him and asked him to dance and he responded gruffly, “No!’   When I went back to my friends, they asked me what I had done, and they said to me, ‘they are the police stupid, the light is flashing!'”

Before homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969 any same-sex couple dancing together was potentially subject to arrest under the charge of gross indecency.  The 620 Club used the flashing light to alert its clientele to suspected police presence, and dancing would either cease or gay men and lesbians would switch partners and grab each other to dance.

Lois Szabo in a 1973 edition of Carousel Capers wrote that: “In the past, many gay clubs have been set up and these businesses were primarily concerned with earning a fast buck!”  Her editorial point being that Club Carousel was the first gay club owned and operated by the community.

To date, that is all we know about the 620 club whose existence is still a bit of a mystery to the Calgary Gay History Project.  If you, or anyone you know has a recollection of the 620 club, we would be grateful if you would contact Kevin Allen at calgarygayhistory@gmail.com.